A few months ago I went to the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam to hear the opening performance of a requiem, part of the opera Wake by the Dutch composer Klaas de Vries. He had been asked to compose an opera to commemorate the fireworks explosion ten years ago in the city of Enschede, which had taken 22 lives. At first, De Vries didn’t want to, because he couldn’t imagine how to avoid the opera becoming a work just for this occasion – but this all changed when he read the novel Cloud Atlas, by the British writer David Mitchell. De Vries decided Mitchell should be the one to write the libretto (song lyrics). This made me curious about the book.
Cloud Atlas is made up of six stories set in different parts of the world in different periods of time: the 19th century, the 20th century and far into the future. The novel is at times serious, at times light hearted, hilarious or thrilling. The stories are bound by a common theme: the dangerous will for power of the dark side of man.
One of the stories is a thriller. A young journalist gets her hands on an inquiry report for a power station. It appears that the nuclear reactor near a large town is unsafe. Trying to investigate this for a newspaper article, the journalist finds herself in a world of corruption, blackmail, betrayal and murder. It is a world in which human life means nothing. Anything is allowed in order to save the directors of the company and the company itself.
Each story stands at first sight by itself, and ends in a cliffhanger to be finished in a later part of the book. It takes some time to get an overview of the cohesion of the book. Mitchell stretches our patience when he introduces a man from the very far future, telling his life story in a language derived from modern English, which is difficult to read.
The answer to the question why Mitchell was asked to write a libretto lies perhaps in the second story, about an English composer. He thinks in terms of music and instruments and settings. This, in combination with the catchy dialogues and overall cohesion of the book, shows that Mitchell is a musical thinker.